The toils of unpaid internships

This is a topic that I have wanted to write about for a while and I thought I’d take my chance when I saw these articles in the news yesterday:

BBC – MPs call for unpaid internships ban

The Guardian – Ban unpaid internships that penalise working-class young, say MPs

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone already in or wanting to get into the industry that publishing does not pay well. As I have been consistently told throughout my career planning, you go into publishing for love of books not love of money. It didn’t take me long to come to terms with this as my priority in searching for a career path has always been in finding something I enjoy and that is fulfilling on a daily business. That said, people still need to be able to get by.

What is striking about the publishing world, and perhaps what makes it stand out from other industries, is the disproportionate level of competitiveness to salary, particularly at entry level. Despite the modest pay, publishing continues to be one of the hardest career ladders to climb on to and is heavily dependent on work experience to give you a hand up. And we’re not talking just one or two placements; I’ve spoken to people who have spent months going from placement to placement trying to gather enough variety to make them stand out in a sea of similar candidates. Very rarely do these placements offer to cover expenses, let alone are paid.

Many employers from all sectors rely on the fact that students and graduates are desperate enough to get into their industries that they are willing to work for free, but for many people that’s just not feasible. I for one am indebted not only to my parents for supporting me through various work placements, helping with train fares etc., but also to friends for letting me crash at their place for weeks at a time to cut down commuting costs. I am also in the fortunate position to be within commuting distance of London and Oxford, both almost the exclusive homes to the UK publishing industry. Without this, I would have had little to no chance of getting that all-important work experience.

As the report from the MPs mentioned in the articles has pointed out, not only are these unpaid work experience placements and internships a barrier to those from less advantaged backgrounds, they are also creating a geographical barrier. While one work experience placement I have done did offer both travel expenses, this only extended to a London day ticket. It cost considerably more to get the train into London every morning, although less that it would be to stay in temporary accommodation at the time. And that’s coming from a key London commuter area.

Banning unpaid internships and introducing a minimum wage for such placements would not only allow more diversity into the industry but also increases the value of the experience. My internship at Oxford University Press was a paid one and this 100% added to the sense that we were appreciated for our ideas and contributions. It recognised that although we were recent graduates yet to have made a full debut into the grown-up working world, we still had something to give that was worth paying for. Personally it gave me the confidence to speak up and feel like a member of the company even in the short space of time I was given. Much more so than in unpaid placements  I had done where I often felt more of a nuisance than a help.

Obviously it’s easy enough to say that companies should start paying out when we’ve already established that publishing is an industry in which spare money is hard to come by. But perhaps if more planning went into creating more structured work experience placements and internships, then a more valuable experience could be created; the emphasis in the dreaded job hunt could then become less on how many placements one can get hold of or come by, and more on what one contributed and achieved during that time.

What’s your experience with unpaid internships and work experience placements? Would love to hear how you managed them. Or if you had any experiences with paid placements. Drop me a comment.

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